Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron - Read Online
Shadow of the Silk Road
0% of Shadow of the Silk Road completed

About

Summary

Shadow of the Silk Road records a journey along the greatest land route on earth. Out of the heart of China into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran and into Kurdish Turkey, Colin Thubron covers some seven thousand miles in eight months. Making his way by local bus, truck, car, donkey cart and camel, he travels from the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, the mythic progenitor of the Chinese people, to the ancient port of Antioch—in perhaps the most difficult and ambitious journey he has undertaken in forty years of travel.

The Silk Road is a huge network of arteries splitting and converging across the breadth of Asia. To travel it is to trace the passage not only of trade and armies but also of ideas, religions and inventions. But alongside this rich and astonishing past, Shadow of the Silk Road is also about Asia today: a continent of upheaval.

One of the trademarks of Colin Thubron's travel writing is the beauty of his prose; another is his gift for talking to people and getting them to talk to him. Shadow of the Silk Road encounters Islamic countries in many forms. It is about changes in China, transformed since the Cultural Revolution. It is about false nationalisms and the world's discontented margins, where the true boundaries are not political borders but the frontiers of tribe, ethnicity, language and religion. It is a magnificent and important account of an ancient world in modern ferment.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061809620
List price: $10.99
Availability for Shadow of the Silk Road
With a 30 day free trial you can read online for free
  1. This book can be read on up to 6 mobile devices.

Reviews

Book Preview

Shadow of the Silk Road - Colin Thubron

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1

1

Dawn

In the dawn the land is empty. A causeway stretches across the lake on a bridge of silvery granite, and beyond it, pale on its reflection, a temple shines. The light falls pure and still. The noises of the town have faded away, and the silence intensifies the void–the artificial lake, the temple, the bridge–like the shapes for a ceremony which has been forgotten.

As I climb the triple terrace to the shrine, a dark mountain bulks alongside, dense to the skyline with ancient trees. My feet sound frail on the steps. The new stone and the old trees make a soft confusion in the mind. Somewhere in the forest above me, among the thousand-year-old cypresses, lies the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, the mythic ancestor of the Chinese people.

A few pilgrims are wandering in the temple courtyard, and vendors under yellow awnings are offering yellow roses. It is quiet and thick with shadows. Giant cypresses have invaded the compound and now stand, grey and aged, as if turning to stone. One, it is said, was planted by the Yellow Emperor himself; another is the tree where the great emperor Wudi, founder of the shrine two thousand years ago, hung up his armour before prayer.

The pilgrims are taking photographs of one another. They pose gravely, accruing prestige from the magic of the place. Here their past becomes holy. The only sound is the rustling of the bamboo and the murmuring of the visitors. They pay homage in this temple to their own inheritance, their pride of place in the world. For the Yellow Emperor invented civilisation itself. He brought China–and wisdom–into being.

The woman is gazing at a boulder indented by two huge footprints. Slight and girlish, she jumps at the sight of a foreigner. Foreigners don’t come here–she laughs through her fingers–she is sorry. The footprints, she says, belong to the Yellow Emperor.

‘Not really?’

‘Yes. One of his concubines used them to make boots. He invented boots.’

We walk for a moment where memorial stones are carved with the tribute of early emperors, and come at the court’s end to the Hall of the Founder of Human Civilisation. Its altar is ablaze with candles and incense, and heaped with plastic fruit. The woman’s gaze, when I question her, stays candid on mine. The Yellow Emperor invented writing, music and mathematics, she says. He discovered silk. This was where history began. People had been coming here generation after generation. ‘And now you too. Are you from your government?’ But her eyes dip to my worn trousers and dusty trainers. ‘A teacher?’

‘Yes,’ I lie. Already a new identity is unfurling: a teacher with a taste for history, and a family back home. I want to go unquestioned.

So that’s why you speak Mandarin, she says (although it is poor, almost toneless). ‘And where are you going?’

I think of saying Turkey, the Mediterranean, but it sounds preposterous. I hear myself answer: ‘Along the Silk Road to the north-west, to Kashgar.’ And this sounds strange enough. She smiles nervously. She feels she has already reached out too far, and turns silent. But the unvoiced question Why are you going? gathers between her eyes in a faint, perplexed fleur-de-lis. This Why?, in China, is rarely asked. It is too intrusive, too internal. We walk in silence.

Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world…

A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.

Yet to follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished, leaving behind it the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit borders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices. Mine stretches more than seven thousand miles, and is occasionally dangerous.

But in the temple of the Yellow Emperor, the woman’s gaze has drifted north. ‘He was buried up there on the mountain,’ she says. ‘It’s written that people tugged at the emperor’s clothes as he flew to heaven, trying to pull him back. Some say that only his clothes are buried there. But I don’t think this is true.’ She speaks softly, with a tinge of unexplained sadness. ‘The grave is quite small, not like those of later emperors. I think life was simpler in those days.’

We walk for a minute longer under the eaves of the temple. Then, suddenly, the quiet is shattered by the stutter of power-drills and the groan of dump-trucks.

‘They’re building the new temple,’ she says. ‘For celebrations and conferences. This one’s too small. The new one will hold five thousand people.’

Later I peer down from the hillside on the building site where it will be. I imagine the stressless, unchanging temple-pavilions of China rising from their wan granite. This place, Huangling, is only a hundred miles north of modern Xian, but is lost deep in another time of erosion and poverty. Who will come?

But the whole site is resurrecting as a national shrine, and already the older temple is filled with the memorial stelae of China’s statesmen offering homage to ‘the father of the nation’. Here is the stone calligraphy of Sun Yatsen from 1912, and of Chiang Kai-shek, predictably coarse; of Mao Zedong, who was later to condemn the Yellow Emperor as feudal; of Deng Xiaoping and the hated Li Peng.

The clamour of restoration dies as you climb the track where it snakes through the cypress woods. From somewhere sounds the drilling of a woodpecker, and human voices echo and fade above you. Here and there a yellow flag on a bamboo pole marks the way. You are sinking back in time. Close to the summit the path becomes a stone stairway, and the trees turn phantasmal, their trunks twisted like sticks of barley-sugar or wrenched open on swirling slate-blue veins. Here the grandest mandarin, even the emperor, abandoned his sedan chair and approached the mausoleum on foot.

For there is little in the end–from music to the calendar–whose discovery is not attributed to the Yellow Emperor. He reigned for a hundred years until 2597 BC before ascending to heaven on a dragon. It was he who instituted the festivals of earth and silk. After him the reigning emperors, from a remote time, inaugurated the year by ploughing a ritual furrow, while their empresses offered cocoons and mulberry leaves at the altar of his wife Lei-tzu, the Lady of the Silk Worms.

It was Lei-tzu, in legend, who discovered silk. While walking in her garden, she noticed a strange worm gorging on mulberry leaves. For several days she watched it spinning itself a golden net, and imagined it the soul of an ancestor. Then she saw it close itself away, and thought it dead–until the reincarnate moth burst from its cocoon. Toying, mystified, with its minute broken shroud, the empress mistakenly dropped it into her tea. Idly she picked at the softened fibre, then began to unwind it, with growing astonishment, into a long, glistening filament of silk. In time she became the teacher of silk-weaving and of the rearing of the mysterious worm, and she was deified at her death and placed in the sky in the celestial home of Scorpio, the constellation Silk House.

You reach the summit of the hill, which the ancients called Mount Qiao. Incense and sunlight filter through the trees. People have made sacrifice here since the eighth century BC, and the emperor Wudi built a prayer platform, now softly decaying. The few attendants stare at you in mute surprise. Beside the platform, cauldrons the size of cement-mixers are stuffed with joss sticks, and a suspended log is being swung at a monstrous bell, whose clang shakes the woods.

Beyond, enclosed in a sombre wall so crowded by cypresses that it is almost invisible, rises the grave-mound of the Yellow Emperor. It is only twelve feet high, rank and tufted by shrubs. You circle it tentatively on a path of beaten earth. The funeral stele planted before it reads: ‘The Dragon-rider on Mount Qiao’. But you wonder how he really died, and who he was. Some historians believe that the dragon is the memory of a meteor, in whose cataclysmic fall the emperor vanished. Its remnants have been identified nearby.

As you wander the rim of the mountain, the enigma deepens. Far on all sides the arid hills belong not to classical China but to a harsher world. This is where Shaanxi province points to Mongolia. Down its corridor the barbarian tribes–Huns, Turks, Mongols–descended south into China’s heartland, to the teeming cities of the Yellow River. In the more rigorous early histories, the Yellow Emperor was himself the forerunner of these: a clan leader who invaded from the north-west and unified the people in his path. It is curious. As if to still this nomad flood into controllable history, sages as long ago as the eleventh century BC slotted the conqueror into time as their ancestor. His colour changed to the yellow soil of inner China, where the wind-blown loess from the northern deserts settles into fertile fields. The notional shade of barbarian soils was black or red, and white the tint of death and of the West. But yellow was the colour of the world’s heart.

I circle back to the grave in confusion. Suddenly its mound is not a relic from some golden age, but the primitive barrow of a nomad chief. The father of China was not Chinese at all.

As for the Lady of the Silk Worms, she too fades from known history. The cultivation of silk had spread along the Chinese rivers long before her. More than six thousand years ago somebody in a Neolithic village carved a silkworm on an ivory cup, and archaeologists unearthed an artificially broken cocoon. Silk from the late third millennium BC turned up in a ruined city of Turkmenistan, and early sites have yielded spinning tools and even red-dyed silk ribbons.

In the forest clearing, by the prayer platform, one of the attendants opens his hand to me for money, hoping to sell me incense. But whimsically I choose another tribute. I swing the painted log–it moves swifter, heavier than I expect–against the hanging bell. In the dark clearing it reverberates with a diffused clamour. Long after I’ve relinquished the log, the noise goes on. It booms over the platform, the forest, the tomb, like some melancholy knowledge. It is indefinably alarming. The other pilgrims turn to stare. The sound is more intrusive than any incense or candle.

2

The Capital

The sun rose over a new city. Along its inner avenues, and far out to the skyline, Xian had suffered a hallucinatory change. Eighteen years before, I trudged through a run-down provincial capital. Its sombre ramparts, survivors of the Cultural Revolution, had enclosed little but concrete office blocks and half-empty state emporia. There is a stench of coal dust in my memory, and autumnal mud. Rusting trucks and a river of bicycles had meandered the ghostly grid of ancient streets. The colours along the sidewalks were regulation brown, grey and serge blue. It seemed a place of inert history, and fatal patience.

But now it had shattered into life. I recognised almost nothing. It had not frozen to grandeur like Beijing, but transformed into a hectic procession of overcrowded shopping malls, restaurants and high-tech industrial suburbs. The nine-mile circuit of its walls, which once seemed to enclose nothing, was bursting with reborn vigour, the massive gates funnelling in traffic which clogged the boulevards for miles. Eight-lane highways–including the beleaguered bicycle lane–shot between hotels and prestige apartment blocks carrying the new-fangled private cars and a fleet of ten thousand Citroen taxis.

At the city’s heart, the Ming dynasty bell tower had become a swirling traffic island. As you circle its upper gallery, banging your head on its crossbeams, an enormous shopping mall opposite showers you with computerised advertisements, and a cavernous McDonald’s gleams alongside; slogans proclaim new motor scooters, CD players, mobile phones. From here the traffic streams away to the four points of the Ming compass. At every boulevard’s end the fort-like gates leave jaundiced profiles in the smog, while beyond them hovers a crowd of suburban skyscrapers, like the ghost of the future waiting to break through.

The future can hardly wait. The whole city is in a turmoil of construction. Every other site is marked by a giant computer image of what will be built there–glass-and-tile institutes and company headquarters topped by tilted eaves and temple turrets like paper hats, with a scattering of blond visitors dotted in below for prestige and perspective–so that whole stretches of avenue become futuristic theatre-sets. If you return next year, these vistas promise, you will enter a different city. All that China wants to be, Xian is becoming.

Already the shops and hoardings are persuading you that everywhere is here: Paris, New York, London. The supermarkets are stacked with goods inaccessible even five years ago: electrical products pour in from eastern China; food is piled up in what to older people seems a curious dream. And here and there some glossy mall oversteps into Elysium altogether. These cold palaces offer an unmediated West: Givenchy, Arden, Bally, Gieves & Hawkes, Dior, L’Oréal. The assistants look blank and sanitised, as if adapting by instinct to their role, and their customers, appearing shyly provincial–boyish men, girlish women–glide up and down bedazzled on the escalators.

Sometimes, through half-closed eyes, I tried to reimagine the city of my memory. But I found myself recalling a place which I was no longer sure had existed, under whose louring ramparts, now reverberating with traffic, the farmers had spread their market stalls, and avenues had run deserted. Already this older Xian was retreating to a sepia photograph in my head. I struggled to recover it, but it faded by the hour.

All around now, another generation was on the move. Their pace was more nervous and directed. Little silver cellphones glittered at every ear. In my memory, their parents’ expressions were guarded or blank, and footsteps lumbered. But now they had wakened into difference: more changeable, demonstrative, uneasy. A few reminded me of friends in the West. I half expected them to ignite in recognition. Couples were walking hand in hand, even kissing–a Maoist outrage. Women with auburn-dyed hair were walking little dogs. Long, pointed shoes were in fashion–like jesters’ slippers–and luridly bleached jeans.

Something had been licensed which they called the West. I gawped at it like a stranger. Yet the outbreak of individualism, I sensed, was not quite that. Being Western was a kind of conformity. Even as the West touched them, they might be turning it Chinese. And among these crowds of urban young an undertow of rural migrants–like shockwaves from their past–was threading the streets: loud-mouthed men and women with sun-blackened faces and bushy hair, whose harsh voices filled the noodle shops.

On this transforming city, old people gazed as if at some heartless pageant. Dressed in their leftover Mao caps and frayed cloth slippers, they would settle by a roundabout or park and stare for hours as the changed world unfolded. It was hard to look at them unmoved. Men and women born in civil war and Japanese invasion, who had eked out their lives through famine in the Great Leap Forward and survived the Cultural Revolution, had emerged at last to find themselves redundant. Under their shocks of grey hair the faces looked strained or emptied by history. Sometimes they seemed faintly to smile. They smoked continuously, if they could afford it, and tugged their trouser legs above their knees to catch the sun. And sometimes their expressions had quietened into a kind of peace, even amusement, so that I wondered in surprise what memory can have been so sweet.

Stray from any avenue within the walls, and you become lost in a skein of old suburbs. Just behind the concrete boulevards, they pulse like the city’s unconscious–twist and bifurcate into claustrophobic courtyards where the flimsy wooden walls of family compounds, studded with cracked windows, last out the cold winters under grey-tiled roofs or corrugated tin. As you walk here, the weight of Xian’s past returns. You hear only the squeak of bicycles or the clatter of a pedicab as it deposits its bone-shaken passengers.

In one street, where artists and calligraphers toiled in dark studios, I was surrounded by classical ink-stones for sale, and ranks of badger-hair brushes in discrete sizes (with a stuffed ferret-badger hanging alongside as guarantee). Vendors of bamboo pipes and bottle-flutes blew them in quaint seduction as I passed. But the wonky eaves and balconies above them had been self-consciously restored, and the alley was called ‘Old Culture Street’. Beyond it, lanes selling painted fans and classical opera costumes merged into a market of massed artefacts in lacquer and porcelain, jade and bone. Reproduced as antique, they occupied a shadowland where the old crafts had grown nostalgic, food for tourists. Among them all–the quaint and the occasionally beautiful–I even found mementoes of the Cultural Revolution, manufactured as curiosities. There were Little Red Books for sale, published as posthumous souvenirs; cigarette lighters played ‘The East is Red’ as they lit up. On a popular wristwatch a painted image of Mao Zedong waved his hand jerkily with every second. ‘He is not greeting you,’ the vendor grinned. ‘He is saying goodbye.’ It was as if those years, with all their horror, were being sucked already into the slipstream of the past. The pain was leaving them. They had become kitsch.

But that afternoon a storekeeper offered me another Little Red Book, almost forty years old. It was stained with oil, and inscribed with its owner’s name, Yang Shaomin. Then an old unease came over me. The terror of the Cultural Revolution–its unknown millions persecuted, its hallmark mental cruelty–had never quite left me. Eighteen years ago I had encountered its human wreckage everywhere. I fingered the book tentatively, almost with reverence. It seemed to breathe a corrupt mana. I remembered photographs of Mao Zedong haranguing the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, and the ocean of Red Books lifted to worship him. Had this been one of them? It felt rough and small in my hands. In the back it enclosed a yellowed newspaper clipping of Mao’s thoughts. And as I fingered its paper, that nightmare became real again, and I wondered what had happened to Yang Shaomin, and what he had done.

Then I was back in the daylit street. It was snarled with traffic, and children were coming out of school. Years before, they would have followed their teacher in a dutiful crocodile, the infants strung together by a long cord. Now they jostled and shouted and ran amok. Their satchels were inscribed ‘Happy Journey’ and ‘No. 1 Cool Dog’. I felt foolishly comforted. In the local cinema a Shanghai romance called Why me, Sweetie? was playing alongside Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Now I was walking in fascinated confusion. My eyes kept alighting on those vaguely disturbing advertisements featuring Europeanised models. Their eyes were unnaturally rounded, the epicanthic folds surgically cut, their noses subtly arched or thinned by photographic lighting, and the bud-like mouths were stretched in a Western smile.

‘We are not like our parents. We have no time and no security. You say we walk differently from the old, well that is why. It’s something nervous.’

He seemed to wince across the restaurant table: a young man, barely twenty-three, with a pale, heart-shaped face. ‘Our parents’ world was safer: state pensions, assured jobs and housing. And they want to go on as before, cautiously, preserving. But my generation–our world depends on us.’

He looked at once anxious and excited. This was the sea-change that was transforming China. All at once the future had grown more potent than the past. Change was rendering things obsolete. You could see this where high-rise apartment blocks barged into the old suburbs, bulldozing the clustered generations of the communal courtyard and banking up tiers of nuclear families in their place. Whole regions of the city had become unrecognisable, the man said. And of course it was not merely buildings that were being exchanged, it was the values they fostered.

‘I spent my childhood in those old hutong courtyards. Relationships were warmer then.’ His mouth puckered, as if hunting a lost taste. I wondered if he were not simply regretting being adult. ‘Now we live on the fourteenth floor of a skyscraper, and whenever we go out we lock an iron door behind us.’

He was the awkward by-product of this changed world. He loved animals and green spaces–in childhood he had longed hopelessly for a dog–and was studying ecology with a tinge of despair at his country’s ruthlessness. He was an only child. ‘Most of my friends are outcomes of the One Child policy, state birth control. They call us little emperors. Parents and relatives all dote on these single children. But I don’t think it shapes us for reality. I read the other day of a ten-year-old boy who died drowning, trying to save his friend. He couldn’t swim at all. Everybody said: how brave! But I thought: that’s a typical little emperor. Stupid. He imagined he could do anything.’ His chopsticks dithered over chilli-flavoured chicken. He had eaten almost nothing. ‘There’s a kind of wisdom we’re not taught,’ he said. ‘And every family is full of silences.’

With vague wonder I realised that to him the terrors of the Cultural Revolution were pure history. Mao Zedong had died years before he was born: a symbol, not a man. He said: ‘My parents never talk of that time. I think they don’t want to remember. So I’ll never know what they did. They were Red Guards, of course, and I heard that my father smashed up old things. He may even have killed a man. But I’ll never know.’

He suddenly laughed. ‘The Cultural Revolution is a joke to my friends. When we take group snapshots we sing silly Mao hymns. That’s what they did in those days. They sang hymns before taking a photo. And if you wanted to buy a camera, the shopkeeper might not sell until you’d chanted two or three Mao hymns…’

I said: ‘Can you imagine you and your friends at that time? What you’d have done?’ An old disquiet was surfacing.

‘No. I really can’t imagine this…or, well…no, I can’t…The truth is my whole generation is sick of politics. The government’s rotten. People just join the Party to get on. We want change, but nobody’s going to die for it.’

I thought of the Tiananmen Square massacre. However incoherently, its victims had died for change. But even as I asked him, I realised he had been nine years old at the time.

He said: ‘My father was working in Beijing then, and I was at primary school. I remember the noise and the soldiers, and later we saw blood in the streets everywhere. Soon afterwards I crossed that square with my mother, and I realised something terrible had happened. But that was all, and she said nothing. And now we don’t think about it much, or talk about that.’

In his alert, restless eyes, I imagined misgiving. ‘All the same,’ he said, ‘I think they were brave.’

For a while he picked delicately at the chicken in front of him, sometimes dabbing the corners of his mouth with his sleeve. Then he said with the sudden, paradoxical spareness of his people: ‘I’m afraid of death. And loneliness. When I close my eyes, I go cold. I think: death is like this. Blackness, where there’s no feel or taste. Many young people are afraid of it, I think. Old people can look back on rich lives, perhaps, and are not afraid…’

I thought: everything was always assured to them.

‘…But we young people are unfulfilled, and afraid. Some of my friends go to the Buddhist temple, but only because they want something. I don’t believe in that. For us, after death, there’s nothing.’

The valleys of the Wei and Yellow rivers, where Xian stands, were China’s ancient heartland. To the north the plateaux of windborn loam mount towards Inner Mongolia; to the south the hills, suddenly humid, are terraced for rice and tea. It was in the mild basin between, now spread with wheat and cotton, that the tyrant-emperor Qin Shi Huangdi proclaimed the first capital of a unified China in 221 BC, and was buried in a tomb guarded by massed echelons of terracotta warriors which came to light more than two thousand years afterwards. In his reign the fiefdoms of the past were brutally homogenised: their script, their laws, even their history. He knit together the Great Wall with the labour of a million conscripts and peasants, who died of exhaustion and were immured in it like landfill. The annals of all dynasties but the emperor’s were put to the flames, and dissenting scholars buried alive. Nothing survived that was not his. So a recognisable country came into being: a land in which diversity was morally offensive.

The terracotta army still marches where it was found, through a subterranean vault fifteen miles east of Xian. Fear of the SARS virus, which was spreading north that April, had brought tourism to a standstill, and I found myself almost alone in the cold-lit tunnel. No photograph prepares you for these eerie legions. They move through the earth in their hundreds, eleven columns deep. Once brilliant in vermilion and green, shiny with black armour and pink skin, they have faded to spectral beige. Their robes fall thick and loose over their concave chests, and their hair is knotted in tight buns or bunched behind winged headdresses. Studded plate-armour overlaps their shoulders. But instead of the stone-hearted war engine a despot might demand, they wait in a disparate regiment of watchful and unequal men. Almost no two are alike. There are veterans with wide moustaches and sloping stomachs, thin recruits and scholarly-looking campaigners sporting little chips of beard. In the wan light their expressions are those of expectation, even alarm, as if they await the enemy charge.

But everything wooden–all their arms–has disintegrated. The fists of the spearmen are closed delicately around nothing. Arrows and lances, halberds and crossbows have left behind only splinters of bronze. Horses stand unharnessed to chariots which have gone, while their drivers’ hands extend to grasp thin air.

Circling the dim gangway above them, you imagine this massed and intricate armament, with its mailed elite infantry and expendable conscripts, to be the upsurge of a self-sufficient realm: the country China claimed to be. But already I was dreaming of the road to the west, and it filled my head with a complex ebb and flow. Behind the terracotta horses the earth was printed with the rings of vanished wheels, for at the heart of the imperial armies rolled the leather-bound war chariots, manned by aristocratic archers and armoured spearmen. Yet the chariot was not a Chinese invention. For two thousand years before 221 BC these fleet cars had criss-crossed the steppes of Mesopotamia and southern Russia, and they reached China along the Silk Road a thousand years after their origin. The bronze metallurgy which shaped those vanished weapons perhaps originated in the steppelands too, and all the ancestors of those horses–alert and chariotless in the museum dust–had come along tracks from the west.

Fewer than seven hundred figures have been restored out of an estimated six thousand. Many lie unexcavated under the roofs which crashed in at the end of the Qin dynasty in 206 BC: headless torsos and snapped limbs submerged in a mire of coagulated dust. In another pit an estimated nine hundred soldiers and ninety chariots lie buried under a debris of sagged timbers, where platoons of bowmen kneel to arms. Their bent fingers cradle weapons which have perished, but in the hardened loam nearby, the perfect outline of a long-rotted crossbow startles thoughts of medieval Europe. A Chinese invention from the fourth century BC, it travelled the Silk Road west, arriving in time to arm the phalanxes of Norman and Capetian kings, and to meet its nemesis from the English longbow at Crécy.

These exchanges swarm with question marks. Chinese inventions which percolated along the ancient road–printing and gunpowder, lock-gates and drive-belts, the mechanical clock, the spinning-wheel and equine harness that transformed agriculture–flourished behind the Great Wall for centuries before emerging phoenix-like in the West. And the knowledge of other prodigies–iron-chain suspension bridges, deep-drilling techniques (the Chinese were boring for brine and gas at two thousand feet in the second century BC)–took over a thousand years to travel.

But the notion of China as a sealed empire was breaking apart around me. Reassembled from the grave-pits, a terracotta messenger stood ready with his horse behind him. His harness and saddle were in place, but there was not yet a stirrup. The heavy stirrup was a Chinese brain-child as early as the fourth century AD, it seems, and as it travelled westward, stabilising its rider in battle, it made possible the heavily armoured and expensively mounted knight. To this simple invention some have attributed the onset of the whole feudal age in Europe; and seven centuries later the same era came to an end as its castles were pounded into submission by the Chinese invention of gunpowder. The birth and death of Europe’s Middle Ages, you might fancy, came along the Silk Road from the east.

These imaginings followed me at will through the dim vaults of the Qin emperor. He himself lies a mile away beneath a 290-foot mound, where years before I had wandered alone. Now the Chinese tourist board had discovered it. A flight of steps beetled to the summit among firs and marigolds. Souvenir sellers thronged to meet me at the top, and a fancy-dress Qin dynasty band–drums, horns, squealing pipes–marched in from time to time to shatter the quiet.

But beneath my feet the terrible emperor still lay entombed–if contemporary chronicles are accurate–in a vast and intricate facsimile of his empire, threaded by quicksilver rivers, set in motion by invisible machinery, with his executed wives beside him. Seven hundred thousand workmen, it is said, laboured on this mausoleum through the last years of his reign, and on its completion those who knew too much were immured inside by the descent of stone gates. Within the tomb-chamber, among mountains carved from copper and cities in precious stone, he rides in a boat-shaped coffin on a mercury river, which flows to a mercury sea beneath a night sky printed with pearl stars.

So in death he contrived a self-contained mirror-kingdom, perfect control. Its gemstone cities were laid out for eternity, echoing the stasis of the heavens. The internal gates and passageways, raked secretly by primed crossbows, sealed the borders of his posthumous state. He had walled off the past and the future. His ancestry, like the Yellow Emperor’s, was probably barbarian; yet China was named after him. The seal-fat lamps which lit his tomb were supposed to last for ever.

Huang found me outside my hotel, and had haunted it ever since. I wondered what he wanted. He spoke a breathy English, split by bursts of Mandarin, and above his broad peasant face his hair sprouted so low that it almost met his eyebrows. He invited me home to meet his family, but his family were not there. He was racked by some intense, festering energy.

In his three-room flat, seated on rock-hard upholstery, he unfolded the old ambition of his people with a bright fixation.

‘I don’t want my life to stay level. I’m dreaming a big dream. I want my life to go like this! And this!’ His hand lifted in a jagged stairway. ‘I want to plant a flag on each step! Up, up from nothing, until I die.’

His staccato voice rang through the apartment, where his absent womenfolk had left themselves behind in a whiff of cooking oil and some scattered dolls. ‘My father used to tell me that there was an order to things: first education…then work, then family, then friends. But first, education! You are like a tree, he said. Drinking, smoking, gambling are branches to be cut off. Cut them off, and you grow high.’ He stood up proudly, but he was barely five and a half feet.

‘We have many dangers now. Our society has changed very fast. We are addicts to gambling. Old people just lose a few kwai, and it doesn’t matter. But young people are ruined. And the massage parlours are everywhere, calling themselves beauty salons. They’re just brothels.’ On his rustic face a fastidious wince appeared, then faded. ‘It’s the modern West, it’s because of the fast change.’

‘Yes,’ I mumbled, feeling responsible. A generation ago all this had been unimaginable. Now, every night, my hotel telephone rang with a chirruping woman’s voice offering amo, massage.

‘My father warned me against these things. He noticed my friends. If they were dutiful to their parents, he approved. If not, they were like wolves, he said, bad for the spirit, and I should leave them. They will turn your heart sick, he said.’

His father obsessed him. The old man had been persecuted in the Cultural Revolution for owning books. ‘He was paraded in a dunce’s hat, with his arms wrenched out of their sockets.’ Huang let out a tremor of strained Chinese laughter. ‘But now he’s gone home. He’s retired to the village of his childhood.’

‘The village that persecuted him?’

‘Yes. But to trees now, and flowing water, and a newspaper.’

But he had left behind this son tormented by a zeal for self-improvement. In a belated Maoist spirit Huang had recently volunteered to help farmers, harvesting vegetables into a basket strapped to his back. ‘Useless!’ He tossed some invisible cabbages over his shoulder. ‘Within two days I was like a cripple.’ He was wincing. ‘Soon afterwards my father asked me to join a charity. There are poor people in the mountains here, people who have nothing. So I go with my wife and daughter into the mountains–nine hours, up and down, to a part we’d seen on television–and we find a poor village and a man with four children, and I talk with him, and say don’t be afraid. He has no money, no school for his sons. Just some wheat. So I give money for his oldest child to go to school for the first year. This is big education for me, for my wife and daughter. I ask my daughter to talk with the man’s children, and she bursts into tears because they are so poor…’

His face had simplified into theatrical fervour. Only afterwards did I wonder if his tale were true, or if he had merely witnessed it on television and longed in fantasy to fulfil his father’s ideal.

‘I don’t know what the government can do about the peasants,’ he said. ‘I’m not interested in politics. I don’t want to touch them.’ He swept away a whole troubling world with his hand. ‘I’m an accountant with the municipality. I just work with a computer. But I’m thirty-six already, and I must change my life. I want to dream a big dream and go abroad.’ His face split into a tense, euphoric smile which now never left it. ‘A year ago I helped a Brazilian tourist. He’s a lawyer. He is my only foreign friend–and now you.’ I felt sudden misgiving, the start of a delicate interplay of debt and request. But he said: ‘I want to go to Brazil. During the day there I’ll work at anything, but in the evening I’ll give Chinese lessons. Free, no charge! Money is important, of course, but later. First, friends. Friends will be more important for my life.’ It was a twisted version of his father’s advice. ‘Maybe after a year I’ll have five people studying Chinese–all new friends. Here!…here!…and here!’ He planted them in space, like aerial seeds. ‘Soon maybe one of the friends will tell me: Oh, Mr Huang, I have good news–my father or my uncle works in a company that needs…’

So he was planning to make the move most coveted now: out of administration and into business. He had grown up in the new China of Deng Xiaoping, the land where riches were glorious, an arena of accelerating mobility.

But I felt an